Daniel Pešta’s largest exhibition to date, drawn from his high-flying decade starting in 2007 , which has included three Venice appearances and Second Prize in Painting at 2017’s London Art Biennale, dominates Prague’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art. Pešta’s work is timely, disturbing and profound. His extraordinary artistic range encompasses photography, video, assemblage, installation, sculpture, drawing and painting; his materials include wax, leather, resin, textiles, paper, plaster, wood, acrylic, latex, gum, paint, neon lighting, and stone. Two generative objects pull this exhibition together. One is red string, signifying blood, genetic coding, fatalism, or humanity’s endlessness, variously. The other is the mask. A central motif in Pešta’s practice, it is meant to evoke disguise, dissemblance, and anonymity.
Born in 1959, Pešta lived according to the larger Czech struggle for self-determination. He was painting as the Czechs stumbled out of the darkness of Communist rule in 1989. In the mid-1980s he entered into the underground music scene, anticipating what has been dubbed the “Velvet Revolution” — the demise of what former Czech President Vaclav Havel had called “post-totalitarianism” (in his 1978 samizdat essay “The Power of the Powerless”). After a trip to New York, in 1998, Pešta saw the possibilities of multimedia art.
Unique among the nations under the Warsaw Pact, the Czechs were treated with more latitude by the Soviets, what Havel would call rule with the “gloves on.” Pešta lay low, nevertheless, avoiding official notice, making graphic art on commission. Others lived within the “illusion” that they were acting “in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe”—and yet, as Havel observed, daily “acts of acquiescence” led to “spiritual suffocation,” in a society “permeated with hypocrisy and lies” (“The Power of the Powerless”). Pešta, today free to be an artist of ideas, always will push the Czech conversation out of complacency. People here in Prague delicately call their political system “a young democracy,” one run by a president and prime minister who are populist demagogues in a government that includes significant communist representation—a political climate in this part of the world not entirely unlike that in Poland and Hungary, whose leaders will not disparage Putin. Pešta’s art repudiates passive dishonesty. And it packs a subliminal wallop.
Although his paintings refute the conventions of classical beauty, their nightmarish imagery can be exquisitely beautiful. His Scream series (2015-2016), for example, pays homage to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893), yet the postures and facial expressions of Pešta’s figures embody a specifically Czech sensibility and history (informed by Freud and Kafka who are also from Prague, thus Pešta’s explorations of the unconscious and nightmarish oppression). Pešta’s subjects in these paintings are slipping from their human state. One figure in “Scream III” roars ferociously at a white button-down shirt, draped over a clothes valet. This is a primal assault on civility, as well as a rejection of the category “human.” The structure of the figure’s face is animal-like; it suggests the faces in Christ Carrying the Cross (1510-1535), attributed to a follower of Hieronymous Bosch. Civil gestures may disguise savagery, as was the case under the Nazis and Soviets.
This disguise is a kind of masking. Masks are everywhere in the show. They evoke Havel’s focus on the duplicitous lives people adopted within the Communist socio-political sphere. Masking may also take place in present-day life. Upon entering the DOX exhibit, one encounters a large-scale video of Pešta’s face, covered by a mask of gum (Narcissus, 2010). He sucks in the gum, his mouth opened, so to gradually slip the mask off his face, chewing it, and swallowing it with a huge gulp. The amplified noise of his breathing and mastication are nearly overwhelming.
In other artworks Pešta looks at the history of discrimination against the Roma, or European Gypsies. For Window (2005), he modifies an archival photo of prisoners in front of the barracks at Lety, the infamous Roma concentration camp. In Pešta’s image, the prisoners appear to be corralled. Crisscrossing wire covering the photo’s frame transforms the historical image into a sculptural object. When a series of portraits of young, welcoming Roma children, painted in soft hues, titled I am a Gypsy, and You?, was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Pešta asked an interviewer to “imagine a hypothetical situation of a different fate, one in which we were born Romany.” But the most striking of Pešta’s Roma projects is I Was Born in Your Bed (2013). The project is comprised of two videos playing simultaneously. On one screen playful Roma children, seated on bleachers, pull white hoods over their heads when their names are called; the same drama unfolds on the other screen with black hoods. The calling of one’s name can mean a welcome opportunity, yet the selection of individuals, as in the Lety camp, can mean extermination. And the hood can be used to mask the condemned from the view of others, before execution.
While the hood is another form of the mask, a different component of Pešta’s Roma project consists of three large cubes made of thousands of compressed rubber masks. Titled Separation (Triptych) (2011), the cubes are chilling visions of anonymous and lifeless faces — the opposite of the detailed and sympathetic characterization one finds accompanying belongings from death-camp victims on display at Auschwitz. Theresienstadt is an hour from Prague.
When viewing Genetic Codes – Carmens (2012-2013), an assemblage of children’s photos encased in transparent acrylic cylinders, I felt the same chill. Like the empty masks or the hoods in I Was Born in Your Bed, these disembodied faces signify people separated from their humanity and identity.
Pešta’s dark fatalism is even more salient in the large installation Ground Zero (2011), a procession of what look like town burghers, except the figures are posed as if they belong in coffins, while the faces appear to be those of the deceased. Instead of civil life there’s abnegation.
Pešta’s greatness derives from his synthesis of empathy and formal concerns, organized in order to interrogate hypocrisy. After World War II, the Czechs — unlike all the other peoples who would live behind the Iron Curtain — invited the Soviets in. They realized their blunder with the 1968 invasion. It took another twenty years to break free and invent a new world for themselves. Pešta’s art, without compromise, advances that glorious new world.
DeTermination continues at the DOX Center of Contemporary Art (Poupětova 1, Prague, Czech Republic) through May 7, 2018.